CHILDERSBURG, Ala. (AP) — Michael Jennings wasn’t breaking any laws or doing anything that was obviously suspicious. the black minister was simply watering the flowers of an out-of-town neighbor.
But there was a problem: Around the corner, Amber Roberson, who is white, thought she was helping the same neighbor when she saw a vehicle she didn’t recognize at the house and called the police.
Within minutes, Jennings was in handcuffs, Roberson was apologizing for calling 911, and three officers were talking to each other about how things could have been different.
Harry Daniels, an attorney representing Jennings, said he plans to file a claim with the city of Childersburg seeking damages and then file a lawsuit. “This should be a lesson and an educational tool for law enforcement about what not to do,” he said.
A 20-minute video of the incident captured on one of the officers’ body cameras shows how quickly a carefree afternoon on a quiet residential street turned into yet another potentially explosive situation involving black and white law enforcement.
“What are you doing here, man?” Officer Chris Smith asked as he approached Jennings, who was holding a hose with a stream of water falling on roadside plants outside a small, white house.
“I’m watering flowers,” Jennings replied from a few feet away. Around a mailbox were lawn decorations. fresh multi covered the beds. It was more than an hour before sunset on a Sunday in late May, the kind of spring evening when people often tend to plants.
Smith told Jennings that a caller said she saw a strange vehicle and a person who “wasn’t supposed to be here” at the home. Jennings told him the SUV he was talking about belonged to the neighbor who lives there.
“I’m supposed to be here,” he added. “I’m Pastor Jennings. I live across the street.”
“Are you Pastor Jennings?”
“Yeah. I’m looking for their house while they’re gone, watering their flowers,” Jennings said, still spraying water.
“Okay, well, that’s cool. Do you have ID?’ asked Smith.
“Oh no. Man, I’m not going to give you ID,” Jennings said, turning back.
“Why not?” asked Smith.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” replied the pastor.
Jennings, 56, was born in rural Alabama just three years after George W. Wallace pledged “segregation forever” in the first of his four inaugurations as governor. His parents grew up in a time when racial segregation was the law and blacks were expected to act respectfully towards whites in the South.
“I know the background,” Jennings said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, the officers who confronted him on May 22 work for a majority-white town of about 4,700 people located 55 miles (88 kilometers) southeast of Birmingham on US 280. Whites control city hall and the police station.
Jennings entered the ministry shortly after graduating high school and hasn’t strayed far from his hometown of nearby Sylacauga, where he leads Vision of Abundant Life Ministries, a small, nondenominational church, when he’s not doing landscaping or selling objects on the Internet. In 1991, he said, he worked in security and then trained to be a police officer in a nearby town, but left before taking the job full time.
“That’s how I knew the law,” he said.
Alabama law allows police to ask for someone’s name in a public place when there is reasonable suspicion that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime. But that doesn’t mean a man who innocently waters flowers at a neighbor’s house has to provide identification when asked by a police officer, according to Hank Sherrod, a civil rights attorney who reviewed the full police video at the AP’s request.
“This is an area of the law that is pretty clear,” said Sherrod, who has handled similar cases in north Alabama, where he practices.
Handcuffed and seated between two bushes in the front yard of his neighbor’s house, Jennings told Smith and Gable how his son, the university’s director of athletics, had been wrongly “arrested and branded” in Michigan after a young woman at a competition cheerleaders said a black man had hugged her.
Jennings said he felt “anger and fear” during his interactions with Alabama police officers, not only because of what happened to his son, but also because of the cumulative weight of previous police killings — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others — as well as lower-profile incidents and shootings in Alabama.
“That’s why I didn’t fight back,” he said.
Jennings was already in the back of a patrol car when Roberson, the white woman who called the police, showed up. Jennings, she told officers, was a neighbor and friend of the home’s owner, Roy Milam.
“OK. Is he allowed here to water flowers?” asked Smith.
“Maybe, because they’re friends,” she replied. “They went out of town today. He can water their flowers. It would be perfectly normal.”
Milam told the AP that’s exactly what happened: He had asked Jennings to water his wife’s flowers while camping in the mountains of Tennessee for a few days.
Moments later, officers told Roberson that a license plate check showed that the gold sport utility vehicle that pushed her into first place belonged to Milam. They got Jennings out of the patrol car and he told them his name.
“I didn’t know it was him,” Roberson told police. “I’m sorry about that.”
The officers spent much of their remaining time at the scene in a discussion that began with a question from Smith: “What are we going to do with him?”
After weighing various options, they settled on a charge of obstructing government business that was dismissed within days in city court. The police chief who called for the firing after reviewing the 911 call and body camera video, Richard McClelland, resigned earlier this month. City officials have not said why he resigned, but City Attorney Reagan Ramsey said it had nothing to do with what happened to Jennings.
Childersburg’s interim police chief, Capt. Kevin Koss, did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Michael Jennings is still friends with Milam, the neighbor with the flowers. Milam, who is white, said he feels bad about what happened and the two men will continue to watch over each other’s homes, as they have for years.
“He’s a good neighbor, for sure. There’s no doubt about it,” Milam said.
Jennings also recently spoke with Roberson for the first time since the arrest.
The pastor, who lives less than a third of a mile from the police station, said he has not seen any of the three officers involved in his arrest since that day. He believes all three should be fired or at least disciplined.
“I feel a little paranoid,” he said.
Despite this, he still waves at police cars that pass his neighborhood, in part because of the Christian call to be kind to others.
“You’re supposed to love your neighbor no matter what,” he said. “But you’ve heard the saying, ‘Keep your enemies close to you.’
Reeves is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity Team.